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TV blog: Kensington Palace: Behind Closed Doors and Diana

Benjie Goodhart / 17 June 2021

To coincide with what would have been her 60th birthday a new ITV documentary looks back at Diana's life, and Channel 5 goes behind the scenes at Kensington Palace.

Kensington Palace: Behind Closed Doors 1/2, Thursday 24th June, 8pm, Channel 5

I went on my daughter’s class camping trip last weekend. This meant that I spent two days and two nights in a field with about 20 screaming ten-year-olds, all of whom were, at any given moment, either crying, having water fights, crying while having water fights, or just having fights. In the evenings, all the adults drank heavily both to lubricate the social wheels and to help us drop off to sleep. For those unfamiliar with a life under canvas, a tent is like the Sahara Desert in that it manages to combine being stunningly cold at night with being unbearably hot by morning. And that’s without the noise of the six or seven children who decided to get up and resume water fights and crying at 6am.

So, when I got home, I wanted a bit of luxury. A bit of audio-visual pampering. I wanted to watch how the other half lived. So the idea of taking in a documentary that would tell me all about life in Kensington Palace sounded perfect, on the basis that it was the furthest thing possible from sleeping in a tent.

The programme began with an external shot of Kensington Palace, whereupon narrator Sue Johnston’s mellifluous tones state the following: “Nestling at the edge of Hyde Park in Central London, there’s a secret palace.”

Um… what? Secret, you say? Is that secret in the sense of being one of the most famous buildings in the country? Secret in the sense of being the known around the world as the palace in front if which sat a sea of flowers after Diana died? Or do you mean secret as in open to the public? Or secret as in marked on all maps? Or secret as in featured all over the internet? I mean, there are less secret buildings, granted, but probably not more than a handful. It’s not like the crew from Channel 5 went through the back of a wardrobe and discovered it, or stumbled across its ruins while digging Crossrail.

The voiceover doesn’t get much better. ”With exclusive access, we go behind the chandeliers.” What? Behind the chandeliers, you say? Not behind the scenes, or behind the closed doors, or behind the walls, or behind the curtains. We’re going behind the chandeliers? Sue, Sue, what are you bleeding well ON about? You can’t go behind chandeliers. They don’t hide anything. They just hang around in mid-air, like big, posh lights.

Aside from a slightly dodgy script, it quickly becomes apparent that we’re not going to be treated to an exclusive behind-the-scenes sit down with Will and Kate, as they show us round their private apartment and tell us their most intimate secrets. Indeed, we don’t get to see inside their apartment at all. They live in Apartment 1A, which is Princess Margaret’s old flat. I bet they still find the odd ashtray full of B&H in some of the less-visited rooms.

Instead, we are shown around the parts of the building that the public are allowed to see on tours of this ‘secret’ palace. The place hosts half-a-million visitors each year. We meet some of the staff who show people round. Apparently, the most regular question they get asked is whether tourists visiting the palace might be invited to have tea with Will and Kate. Presumably they felt that, for their £17, they’d get to see the Palace, the exhibition, the dresses, and have an M&S Carrot cake with the Cambridges, and maybe catch a quick episode of Homes Under the Hammer together. Other questions staff have been asked this year include whether Victoria is the current monarch (I know our Queen is old, but she’s not 202) and whether Charles and Diana still live on site. Someone has quite the piece of news to deliver…

Apart from that, this is fairly standard stuff. We look at one of Diana’s old daywear outfits going on show, and find out what work needs to be done during the refurbishment of the palace. Sadly, they’re not installing a jacuzzi, bar and games room, it’s more a case of reapplying some gold leaf and hanging four absolutely ginormous chandeliers for the cameras to go behind. There’s a good deal of drama about a bolt not fitting on one of the chandeliers, but then it’s fixed. It’s not exactly ‘Who Shot JR?’

Nevertheless, this is a likable programme about people who work somewhere amazing, and love their jobs. It’s packed with history, insight and nostalgia, and it might not be huge on revelations or edge-of-the-seat adrenaline-rushes, but it’s better than camping, and for now, that’s enough for me.

Diana, Thursday 24th June, 9pm, ITV

In many ways, the death of Princess Diana was the British Kennedy assassination: The ‘where were you” moment for a generation. It was, for a nation, one of the defining shared experiences of our lives. Just, it has to be said, as Covid has been, only at least back in 1997 we could all hug each other. And, when needed, wipe our bottoms.

In many ways, it feels like yesterday. So it’s a shock to realise it was 24 years ago. The world was very different then – as evidenced by the way I found out about the news. I woke up on a Sunday morning at my girlfriend’s flat in Clapham. I went out to buy The Observer and saw, on the front page, that Diana had been seriously injured in a car crash in Paris. By the time I got back to the flat, my girlfriend had put on the TV and discovered Diana was dead.

So much of that would be different if it happened today. For a start, I’d be in trouble if I woke up at a girlfriend’s flat in Clapham, as I am married to a woman in Brighton. But also, our phones would be full of text and WhatsApp messages, and news alerts. And I wouldn’t need to buy a newspaper, because I have the app on my phone. The past is a foreign country and all that. We certainly did things differently there.

It’s a strange thought that Diana, such a remarkably iconic figure looming so large in a nation’s consciousness, was a part of our lives for less time than she has been gone from it. She was in the public eye for fewer than 17 years, and has been gone from it for 24. On 1st July, she would have celebrated her 60th birthday. To mark the occasion, ITV is showing this 90-minute documentary about her life.

Sadly, my attempts to obtain a copy of this programme to view have proved unsuccessful, so I can’t tell you what it’s like. As with all of these programmes, it promises thrilling original footage, exclusive revelations from close friends and confidantes, gripping archive material like letters and diaries. According to the blurb, it will show Diana’s “incredible journey from being a teenage Pimlico nursery assistant to finding her voice as the Princess of Wales.” Although I don’t imagine most nursery assistants were born to an Earl and Countess, and raised in a palace, but there you go, whatever suits your narrative…

Whether the film delivers, I can’t tell you – although given that it’s filmed by Bafta-winning director Jemma Chisnall, and made by 72 Films, the production company behind the excellent series The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, it’s a fair bet that this will be rather good.

That said, it’ll have to really pull out the stops to find much stuff we didn’t already know. It’s fair to say, we still have something of a Diana obsession in this country. Pop her on the front page of your paper (as some of the mid-market tabloids regularly do) and your circulation will go up. Look at the other programming on this week. There’s a documentary about Kensington Palace which, if you’ve got this far, you’ve already read about (have a gold star and go home early). In it, there is much discussion about her outfits, one of which is always on display at the palace. Meanwhile, on Saturday, there is a documentary about Charles and the women in his life. You don’t need to be a genius to work out who will get top billing. It’s not like millions will be tuning in to learn more about his relationship with Lady Jane Wellesley.

On July 29th, it will be 40 years since Diana and Charles were married. Doubtless there will be another slew of documentaries on then, too. The point is, Diana’s story has been told again and again. Can there really be any revelations in store?

I suspect not. But, in a world where Diana documentaries are two-a-penny, given its impressive credentials, should be worth 90 minutes of your time.

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 19th June

Paul Weller Live at the Barbican, 8:30pm, BBC Two: Edith Bowman presents a screening of the Modfather’s first live concert in two years, filmed in May at the Barbican, and backed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Charles and the Women Who Could Have Been Queen, 9pm, Channel 5: Documentary looking at the various romances from the Prince of Wales’ past, including Diana and Camilla, but also Lady Jane Wellesley, Lady Sarah Spencer, and the grotesquely un-titled Anna Wallace.

Sunday 20th June

Piers Morgan’s Life Stories: Joan Collins, 9pm, ITV: Sadly not available for preview, this promises to be a thoroughly entertaining romp through the career, loves, co-stars and tragedies of the incomparable Ms Collins.

The Handmaid’s Tale, 9pm, Channel 4: Series four of the dystopian tale set in an authoritarian USA, featuring an extraordinary central performance by Elisabeth Moss as the heroic central character June.

Monday 21st June

Devon and Cornwall, 8pm, Channel 4: Series four of the documentary series covering different aspects of West Country life. Tonight’s programme looks at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, and features a trawler skipper with an unusual technique for selling his fish.

Thursday 24th June

Live T20 Cricket: England v Sri Lanka, 6pm, BBC Two: Live coverage of the T20 International from Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, where Eoin Morgan’s England will be hoping to improve upon recent displays by the Test side.

Escape to the Chateau: Make Do and Mend, 9pm, Channel 4: Dick and Angel Strawbridge help people around the UK with their design and DIY dilemmas.

Friday 25th June

Scotland: A Year in the Wild 1/4, 7pm, Channel 5: Documentary series looking at the wildlife and natural elements abundant in Scotland during the springtime.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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